Mayo champions Ballina Stephenites continue on the path for Connacht glory with a big test against Corofin in the semi-final at Pearse Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

Corofin stand in Ballina’s path to Connacht final

A big improvement was demanded and expected, and indeed was delivered by Ballina Stephenites, in the Connacht quarterfinal against Fulham Irish, and they are now are within one step of a provincial final appearance for the first time in 16 years, writes John Melvin.

It doesn’t get much tougher than this as the Mayo champions face one of the most decorated clubs at senior level, 10 times Connacht champions and five times All-Ireland winners, Corofin, who bounced back, to the surprise of many, with victory over defending county and Connacht champions Moycullen in the Galway final, winning on a scoreline of 1-11 to 1-9.

The semi-final will be played in Pearse Stadium, Salthill, today (Saturday) at 2 p.m.

Corofin, who were managed by Stephen Rochford to win the 2015 All-Ireland club title before the Crossmolina man took over the over the job as Mayo senior team manager, haven’t lost the hunger and drive that has been the main source of their success over the last decade in particular, a golden period for the club that included four provincial titles in a row (2016-2019).

The fact that the clash is fixed for Pearse Stadium makes the clash even tougher. The wild Atlantic winds have a habit of encouraging the outcome of so many games at the Galway city venue.

The Stephenites will be hoping that the winds of change will continue to give them the momentum to carry their ambitions of a Connacht title that bit further, but this is clearly a new level in the journey of the Mayo champions and will provide them with the toughest challenge to date.

Ballina have a couple of things going for them going into the semi-final, not least the fact that they had a good test in the quarterfinal at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park where they beat visiting side Fulham Irish, the London champions, by 3-11 to 0-5 on Saturday evening last.

The visitors were not as poor as the 15-point defeat would suggest while Ballina came through without the services of three of their top players, two of them on the injury list, Dylan Thornton and Padraig O’Hora. The latter is a serious doubt for the semi-final as he watched from the sideline with a strapped leg.

Evan Regan was excused to attend his own stag party aboard and no doubt he was drinking sparkling Ballygowan and put in enough extra training to compensate for his absence for the weekend.

Others were needed to stand up in the absence of those key Ballina players and the likes of Sam Callinan, Conor McStay, Ciaran Treacy, Niall Feeney, his younger brother Luke, who has made a huge impact at the tender age of 17, Frank Irwin and David Tighe, along with a solid performance from goalkeeper David Clarke, will surely give manager Niall Heffernan a lot of confidence as he enters the lions' den in Salthill.

A win was expected against Fulham Irish but the performance was just as important for Ballina, and they produced that.

The open nature of the game gave the Stephenites a chance to open up their own game with some very good foot-passing and they produced three goals and a few points of real quality.

They won’t be given or expect the same freedom against Corofin, who will provide the physicality that will test Ballina and restrict their attacking flair.

Corofin may not be the same force which dominated when they were the kings of Connacht but they are still a huge force and have a good man leading them in Kevin Johnson, who managed Ballintubber to back-to-back Mayo titles in 2018 and 2019.

Gary Sice, Michael Lundy, Liam Silke, Tony Gill, Kieran Molloy, Patrick Egan and Dylan Wall were among the players who stood tall in that Galway final and are likely to pose the biggest obstacle in Ballina’s path to their first provincial final since 2007, when they defeated Roscommon champions St. Brigid’s to claim their third title.

A win over Corofin could see a repeat of that final, with the Roscommon club strongly fancied to beat Mohill of Leitrim in their semi-final and go on and lift the Connacht crown, but Ballina, who are an emerging young team with still a lot of work to do, could get over this semi-final, with that extra game against the London champions possibly sharpening them up.

There was enough evidence in the quarterfinal to suggest they are capable of putting in another performance having left that Mayo county final display well behind them. They have stopped looking back and can now look forward to a chance of making a provincial final.

There is still quality in the team and if Dylan Thornton and Mikey Murray can get closer to full fitness, I’d give them every chance – but the absence of the man who stokes the fire in the engine room, Padraig O’Hora, would be a serious blow to their final aspirations.